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Lunchtime Conversation


      HELEN POOK       


When a woman I know mentioned she was going to Uganda to help erect a building, I wondered why and how she arrived at that point in her life.  Why would a 68 year old “wise” woman want to travel and volunteer her services somewhere so remote?


I asked this woman, Helen Pook, if she would mind taking us on a journey of how she ended up in Uganda and achieved something rather special.


Helen tells me:  You are never too old to experience life and you learn something new every day.  You just never stop learning.


She is wife, mother, grandmother, friend and now works as a Volunteer co-ordinator at LifeLine, and is also a Telephone Counsellor and Suicide Buddy. Her personal trait ‘of listening and helping others is demonstrated in her lifetime devotion to nursing, caring and counselling. 


Helen was born in May 1940 in Victoria.  Her parents later moved the family, Helen and her two younger brothers to Sydney, New South Wales.


Gigi:  How would you describe your upbringing?


Helen:  Very conservative but very happy.


Gigi:  When you left school, what career path did you take?


Helen:  I took up nursing.  My mother was a nurse and it certainly did play a part in helping me make that decision I just never thought of doing anything else.  I trained at the Royal North Shore Hospital under the apprenticeship system.

I was blessed during that time and able to ‘walk’ beside and comfort many hurting people during those 4 years.


Gigi:  Do you think nursing has changed over the years?


Helen:  Yes in many ways. Placing the training in University has given us status but not the remuneration for the responsibility & commitment expected by employers and the public.

The patient contact and care is being handed over to Enrolled Nurses and Nurses Aids and graduate nurses in Hospitals are very busy in administration roles dealing with Protocols, Policies & Procedures.


When I trained, our senior nursing staff were our mentors and role models and we learnt from them many of our practical skills as well as attending lectures given by Senior Trained Nurses.


I loved nursing so much I would often go the extra mile and then I would get into trouble because I would stay back after my shift to chat & befriend a patient!!


There was also a lot of discipline too.  You had to have your quilts and beds wheels lined up and the patients toes had to be pointing straight up in case Matron came in and did a round.  The hospitals were run a bit like a military institution with the emphasis on ‘you do what we say’; you were not popular if you questioned the authority.


Gigi:  Were there support systems in place for nursing staff?


Helen: No.  I can vividly remember when I just out of Preliminary Training School after 6 weeks orientation, I was assigned to a Children’s Ward.  Visiting hours were very strict and distressed the children so much when their mothers had to leave, we resented them coming because of the screaming children they left behind.  I did not understand how emotionally traumatic that must have been for children and parents.

I experienced my first close encounter with the death of a young child I was caring for.  It was a very emotional experience with very little support or counselling.  One just had to move on.   


Gigi:  What did you do after you graduated?


Helen:  I decided to apply for Guys Hospital in the United Kingdom to do my midwifery.   After graduation and while I was waiting to be accepted,  I applied to work at Broken Hill District Hospital as a Sister. 

I learnt a great deal from the staff there as during our training residents had to learn many skills which as nurses we could not practice. In a country hospital the nurses had to do these tasks because there were no residents.  That 6 month experience deflated my ego a bit!  It was in Broken Hill that I met my future husband. 


He was from Durban, South Africa. After graduating as a Civil Engineer he applied to come here on a 3 year bond with the then Department of Main Roads. When he arrived in Sydney, the Department said “where do you want to go?” He said he had no idea as he was totally unfamiliar with the country.   There was a vacancy in Broken Hill.  Can you imagine what a shock it was coming from a seaside city to our outback!


Gigi:  Broken Hill is rather interesting now, but in those days I don’t suppose there was much there!


Helen:  Well, actually it was a very prosperous mining town then, but you didn’t mix with the locals – you had to be born there to be accepted by them.  The engineers, physiotherapists, nurses and teachers who worked there short term all did things together which was a lot of fun.  I guess it is similar to what happens in other places where Aussies gather for support when they travel away from home.


I came back to Sydney to do my Tresillian training, or as it is now called Early Childhood Nursing, and then we got married.  We lived in many country towns, because of the nature of my husband’s work, before eventually returning to Sydney.


But during all of that moving around from country town to country town  it was easy to do locum work in Baby Health Centres because I had that Certificate behind me  That made it possible to still remain in the work force with part time work while we raised out three children.


Gigi:  What do you think is your biggest accomplishment?


Helen:  Surviving motherhood I’d say and now grandparenthood!  (We laugh)


(Helen has a son, Stuart, & two daughters, Carol & Jennifer and seven grandchildren)


Surviving, enjoying and growing with them as each stage is different.  Then and now there is still the myth that when a child arrives one instantly becomes a ‘qualified knowledgeable’ parent.  

Thank goodness there is a lot more information and support for parents now.  I guess examples that spring to mind are post natal depression and cot deaths.  They weren’t recognised and certainly not discussed! 


I did locums in baby health centres for some years in the country and I had the advantage of being the only baby health centre sister in the area who was married and had children. That was an added bonus as I could relate to some of their problems.


I enjoyed that time travelling to the different centres with my set of scales and polio Sabin liquid in the boot of the car.  In some towns I held the Clinic in the local CWA rooms and always received a country welcome from the local CWA member of the day. It was a happy time in our careers as we all loved the country living.


Gigi:  Do you mind your grandchildren on a regular basis?


Helen: No.  I can make a choice about how often and when, which is ideal for a busy ‘Nana', I don’t have to do it on a regular basis like some Nanas.  I don’t know how I could do it every week and be fair to two families.   I will offer for their anniversaries, birthdays, illnesses or time out for the parents. 

The other minding we do is fun for us.  We have each child to stay on their own with us for 2-3 days and we have many adventures together.  Both families live on the south so they are really away from home.


Children need to have someone else they can relate to as they get older.  They need someone they have confidence in and trust.  When they get into their teens they need you there so they can say “Hey I really need someone to talk to”.   If you invest time in them as littlies you both reap rewards now and later.


Gigi:  Now tell me Helen, I am dying to hear how your trip to Uganda came about?


Helen:  Well, it all started in 2006 after one of our minister’s wife and her friend from my church, Northside Community Church went to Kampala, Uganda for a Conference. On their return they shared so much passion and enthusiasm for what Watoto is doing for these orphans that the whole Church caught the Vision too.


They said “Let us get a team together and go back and build a house”.  It spread like wildfire.   The expectation was for perhaps 12 to 15 to sign up but in the end there were 40 of us!  And we had to raise enough money for the ‘houses’ which we would build when we arrived there.


Gigi:  Where was the village? 


Helen:  We were going to Suubi village outside Kampala, capital of Uganda.  And the reason why I wanted to go was because of the excitement our minister’s excitement and passion which inspired me.

I wanted to commit to stepping out of my comfort zone and be a part of mission to others less fortunate than my children and grandchildren.


Gigi:  What were the conditions like for you when you were there?


Helen:  Very good.   They are a very professional organisation and they looked after us very well.  They had a big responsibility to make sure we remained safe.  We were only there for two weeks and so the 40 of us, including one 5 year old, stayed together in a large hostel in Kampala.  They provide us with our own cook and 2 buses to transport us to & from the village each day.


At Watoto, local people are trained to be hosts and they stay with each team.  The teams come from all over the world. We were number 63 of the 85 teams who participated in the program in 2007.


Gigi:  What was the plan when you got there?


Helen:  Our team was the biggest they had ever had.   We had single handedly raised $100,000.  We had planned to build three houses, each dwelling cost about $30,000.  But when we arrived there, the process of building three houses would have been too big to complete in two weeks, so we ended up building a village kitchen.  The kitchen is required to cook for 1200 children for a lunch time meal. Their present kitchen was in a ‘lean to’ which was terrible because when it rains over there the heavens open up and it is a deluge!. 


So that is what we did.  We built a village kitchen & some of us worked on alternate days in the Bulrushes Baby Home for 65 children aged 0-3. 

Many of these children had been abandoned in very tragic circumstances, some only a few hours or days old.  The home is equipped with humidicribs, paid trained staff and both local and overseas volunteers (like us) who come to feed, bath and love them.. They then go to one of the homes in the villages until they have finished their education and have a degree or trade.


Gigi:  How did you feel when you were there?


Helen:  I felt humbled and amazed that this couple, Marilyn & Gary Skinner, who in 1994 responded to a God directed vision to care for orphans in this holistic way. It was a life changing experience being part of a group all with the same focus and not all Christians.  So witnessing was a daily challenge to those in our group and to the Ugandans.


The Skinners started this is for children (their parents have either died in civil wars or had aids).  They adopt every child.   The children are then brought up in these special villages. In each house there is a Ugandan mother and 8 children.  They haven’t got medical centres yet but they are working on this.


Gigi:  How long can the children live in the village?


Helen:  The children arrive at the age of 2 or 3 years old and are looked after right through until they have a job.  So they don’t have to leave until they want to leave themselves.  They are clothed and educated and looked after spiritually, physically and emotionally and the money to do this comes from sponsors all over the world.


Their motto is “It takes a village to raise a child”. 


In Suubi village there are twelve clusters, and each cluster has nine houses and each house has 8 children so you can imagine how big it is.   They have everything from day care, preschool, kindy, primary and high school and then they go to university or learn a trade as an apprentice.  The amount of organisation that goes on is just amazing.


The two hosts we had looking after us said the children are really taking advantage of their opportunities.


The mothers for each house are well screened and they have to be Christians.   These women are chosen because they don’t want to go back to their villages; their husbands have died in the war; they can’t have children because of abuse or their village has been burned down.  These house mothers have to be carefully selected as they stay with these kids right through. 


Each of us we given the chance to go to a different house and have lunch hosted by the mother which really was amazing.


Gigi:  How many villages are there?


Helen:  There are now three villages.  


Gigi:  How do the Skinners get sponsorship?


Helen:  They spend time travelling the world meeting people and to try and secure funds.  They also created the Watoto Choir in 1994.   These choirs are made up from the children in the villages and they travel the world.


If you compare the children with the rest of the country they are very elitist because they are being well fed, educated and exposed to our ethics and morals.   The hope is, when they become leaders they will be able to withstand the corruption that goes on in these countries.


The idea is rescue a child, raise a leader and rebuild a nation”.   This is the plan.


Gigi:  What nationality are the Skinners?


Helen:  They are American.  They went to Kampala in the 1980’s as missionaries. They started a church there but they felt they needed to do something to help the children.


Gigi:  Do the Skinners still live in Kampala?


Helen:  They have a unit in Kampala but they are constantly travelling the world for sponsorship.


I never cease to be amazed at the achievements of other people. When you look at the people from Kampala Pentecostal Church who set up Watoto, well, that is an amazing vision.  They had nothing, absolutely nothing.  They started a small church in a little hall and it grew into this.


It’s the model other countries are looking at but you have got to have a lot of sponsorship to make it work.


Gigi:  I presume the choir idea is pretty unique?


Helen:  Yes.  Each child between the age of 6 to 13 has an opportunity to try out for the choir during their schooling.   There are about 15 to 18 children in the choir and they train for about 6 months before they go away.  They travel overseas for six months so they then have to relate to different cultures.  

The children travel right through Europe, American and even Australia!  And while they are away they stay with host families. 


I’ll give you one quick example of what I found amazing.   While we were having lunch break from our building project, we would sit next to the kids. I took some postcards to show them things in the country I lived.   I showed them pictures of the Harbour Bridge, Opera House etc. and there was a picture of Centre Point tower, the tallest building in Sydney.  

I was trying to explain to these primary school kids what a lift was like.  You know, you try to explain to a child who lives in a land locked country, who lives in a building that is never higher than a single story about how and why you use a lift.  I was trying to put this into words and another kid came and looked over my shoulder.


“Oh, I have been in one of those” he said.

“Where was that?” I asked.

He said “In Canada”.


Here there he was, a little boy from a remote African village who had now travelled overseas and he was so very nonchalant about it all.


This is the difference you know, as some of the children have travelled and are learning all about the world.   The travelling Watoto choirs are a great attraction everywhere they go and they are able to raise a lot of sponsorship money this way.


They are coming here to Sydney in July so if you get an opportunity, go and see them. You can find them on the website to find the details:


Gigi:  It must have been a bit of fun since you would have been friends with the 40 people from your Church,


Helen:  Yes it was.   The youngest was 5 and the eldest was probably me actually!   We knew we had to work physically hard and we achieved above and beyond what they expected us to do.   We were very pleased with ourselves too.


Gigi:  Do you plan to go on more of these missions?


Helen:  Because at our church we now have such a passion about participating in these projects, we want to build on that passion and enthusiasm.  We are keeping our group together and we are looking at which missions our church is going to get involved in.  

The plan is to choose a local mission and an overseas one so that those who do not want to travel overseas can be involved closer to home.


The mission grasped everybody within the whole church, and they were right behind and supported us.


Gigi:  That was a huge effort to raise all that money.  It is amazing what a few can do when you have got the power behind you.


Helen:  Lots and lots of prayer went into it.  


Gigi:  Do you have a personal goal or a dream?


Helen:  I had a vision when I was single that I wanted to be a missionary and that didn’t happen at that time.   But now I see it is coming later in life, not becoming a missionary as such, but now to support missions in any way I can.


Gigi:  Did you have a religious upbringing?


Helen:  I have always been involved and even when we went to country towns we always joined the local church.   I am now an elder at my Church of Christ.


Gigi:   Do you think that support networks within the church work?


Helen:  Yes.  When I think of the older women in our church, I know it is a great support if they haven’t got husbands or family.  We nurture and we do a lot of pastoral care so everybody knows they are much loved.  They are prayed about if they are not well or in hospital and then when the time comes when their loved one dies we spend time with family as well.


Apart from our own members we support local missions.   One of these is “Hope Street” which is a mission for those who s who live and work on the inner city streets of Sydney. 

We support overseas missions for the Church of Christ and organise  programs at our church to support people in the areas of parenting, grief and loss, divorce and separation.


Gigi:  What is the one thing you would say makes you really happy at this point in your life?


Helen:  I am happy because I am alive, have good health – well, it doesn’t make me happy but it helps me to be happy (laughs). 


I have had a great life and I have had healthy children and healthy grandchildren so I am really blessed, Gigi.


I am also looking forward to doing lots of things with the rest of my life because I haven’t got all the responsibilities I had when I was younger.   It is just great when you can choose to work, you can choose to have free time, and you can choose to go on a holiday.  And I could choose to go to Watoto simply because I wanted to.


Gigi:  It is great to hear you say that you are pressing forward with life in such a positive way.


Helen:  I have the pleasure of a job where I am meeting people in their 80’s and 90’s.  I also place volunteers with lonely people in Nursing homes and hostels so again I am dealing with the older people.  


What I find is that those who are positive in their older years have always been that way.  When you talk to them about their early life and what they have done, you realise they have always been like that.  Even though they have physical handicaps or financial problems they will still have a positive spirit.


It is a bit like the saying:  “Do you think the glass is half full or half empty?”


Gigi:  You certainly sound positive to me but is there something in your personality you could change if you could? 


Helen:  I am positive. I get so much pleasure out of the things that I do, physically, emotionally and by caring.   And for people who can’t or haven’t experienced that feeling of pleasure that I get out of it, then, I wish they could.


But if I could change anything about myself, it would be is that I feel responsible for other people’s happiness. I would like to change that feeling of responsibility, and I do work on it and I am getting better at it.


I took up nursing and I have continued right through.  When I look back over my life and whatever role I had, it has always involved in caring and helping other people.


I presently work as a telephone counsellor and a suicide buddy.


Gigi:  Would that be taxing on you emotionally?


Helen:  I tell you, sometimes it is hard to keep the balance.  This support is for someone who threatens suicide and then we support them until they are able get into ‘support networks’.  When they ring LifeLine we build in a buddy system. 


Gigi:  Is there something you haven’t done that you would have liked to?


Helen:  I think maybe I would have liked to have done that trip to England but never mind, we have done many trips over the years together.


Gigi:  What would you recommend as your secret for growing old?


Helen:  Being positive.  Looking at life in a positive way and living each day as it comes.


Gigi:  Can you give me a sentence to sum up you life.


Helen:  It has been and continues to be a privilege to be in the right place in the right time and to be with the people who walk beside me and to be there for my friends. To me it is why I am here; what I am meant to be doing; what I am and where I am going.


To walk beside people and to be an encourager! That is my place. That is everything.


Gigi:  You are such a warm and caring woman, Helen.  You have made and are continuing to make the world a better place.


Helen:  Have you heard the story about the little girl walking with her father along the beach.


There were many starfish washed upon the beach by the tide and she started to pick one up and to put it back in the water.


Her father said, “Why are you doing that?   Look there are thousands of them stranded”. “But” she said, “ this one starfish is going to survive”.


That is what is important.   I believe if you can make a difference in one person’s life then that is what it all about.  No-one can cope with the millions but if everyone helped one person it would be a great start.


Gigi:  Helen, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you. 


I am sure your story of helping to ‘build a village’ will inspire many who are looking for something that is exciting and worthwhile.


And for the thousands of people that you have helped and cared for over the years and who may not exactly remember your face, they will certainly remember the difference you have made in their lives. In fact, you probably don’t know the half of your contribution. 


I would say you have saved not one, but many starfish.


Helen you are truly a Wise Woman.